A few years Alan Jacobs posted an old syllabus for a class at the University of Michigan taught by the great English poet W. H. Auden.
It required 6,000 pages of reading… in one semester. Titled “Fate and the Individual in European Literature,” Auden’s course required students to read the entire Divine Comedy, Horace’s Odes, Augustine’s Confessions, four Shakespeare plays, the Pensees, Blake’s Narrative of Heaven and Hell, Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, Melville’s Moby Dick, and selections from Kierkegaard, Baudelaire, Ibsen, Rimbaud, Henry Adams, Rilke, and Kafka.
At the time, many laughed at the list and ruefully shook their head at the crazy standards that once prevailed in American higher ed. But then this year three scholars at the University of Oklahoma decided to do something different: They essentially taught Auden’s course. They made some alterations to his reading list, but the overall length stayed mostly the same—dropping Dante’s Paradiso, Baudelaire, Kafka, and Rimbaud and replacing them with The Odyssey, The Aeneid, Beowulf, and several classic novels, including Robinson Crusoe and Pride and Prejudice. They also added Paradise Lost to the list.
Here’s what happened next, according to Mark Bauerlein, writing in The Chronicle of Higher Ed:
When enrollment opened last semester, the unexpected happened. The course filled up within minutes. Harper had already warned his students, “This is the hardest class you will ever take.” The syllabus was posted online in advance, so that students knew exactly what they were getting into. The course meets a general-education requirement at Oklahoma, but so do many other courses with half the workload. To accommodate the unexpected demand, the class was expanded from 22 to 30 students, the maximum number that the assigned classroom could hold.
Students from the course told Bauerlein that it was “what they came to college for,” and that “this class is changing my life.” Every student Bauerlein spoke to that was currently taking the course said they would do it again.
Reading this, I was reminded me of an incident in the HBO show The Young Pope that Matthew Schmitz wrote about last year in First Things. In the show, Jude Law plays a future pope, a surprisingly young successor to a more liberal boomer pope. Unlike his predecessor, Law is a fierce traditionalist, choosing the name Pius XIII, and informing the cardinals that he would be making some changes to the Vatican.
At one point, an older cardinal says to Law that he surprises him because he is so young and “your opinions are so old.” Law responds: “I am an orphan. And orphans are never young.”
Law meant it both literally—he was an actual orphan—and metaphorically. Besides never knowing his parents, Law also felt he had never known his roots as a young person and had to find them for himself as an adult.
The fact that such a conversation would happen on a show produced and aired by HBO perhaps says something about how pervasive this longing for solid roots has become amongst young people in the west.
It is in order to address this longing that we created the Protestant Wisdom program and its intensive version, the Protestant Primer. The Primer will take place in South Carolina from June 11-16, taught by Dr. Alastair Roberts and hosted by Grant and Abi Sutherland. The Protestant Wisdom program, taught by Dr. Alastair Roberts and Colin Redemer will be in California running from July 31 to August 10.
The Davenant Institute programs fill a unique niche amongst these kind of programs. Unapologetically Protestant, the programs will not lapse into characteristic errors that some conservative Catholics make in trying to tie the failures of modernity to specific Protestant ideas. In fact, we will argue that a better acquaintance with the headwaters of the Reformation will allow us to retain the elements of liberalism that virtually everyone agrees are good and welcome developments while avoiding the degradations that characterize late modernity.
Our reading list includes familiar names like Thomas Aquinas, John Calvin, and C. S. Lewis but students will also spend time reading Richard Hooker, Zacharias Ursinus, Johannes Althusius, John Ruskin, E. A. Burtt, Oliver O’Donovan, and Stephen R. L. Clark.
The goal of the Protestant Wisdom program is not to give students hand-me-down answers to questions no one is asking. It is, rather, to orient students toward reality, to equip them with time-tested resources that reflect the depth of the faith, and to train them to serve as leaders in their local communities. It is, in short, to train students in Christian wisdom.
If you are interested in learning more about the Protestant Wisdom program or to apply, visit the program page.